One morning in 1988, I was sitting in the lodge at Esalen, working on my translation of the vijnana bhairava tantra. It was early, and the lodge was empty. I was drinking coffee and looking at Sanskrit. The lodge at Esalen
Two Christian monks walked in and sat with me, peaceful and friendly as cats. One introduced himself as Father Mateus, the other as Brother David. Father Mateus looked over at the papers on the table and said, “I know that text. I think that the techniques discussed in it helped the development of early Christian monastic practices.” We spent the next few cups of coffee talking about the influence of India and the meditation traditions on the development of Christian meditation. This is a video log Father Mateus recently posted. He and Brother David reside at a Benedictine Monastery a few miles down the road from Esalen.
There are several mistakes in the following book review, not the fault of Mr. Furlinger, but rather of sources he cites. One is that Bettina Baumer lifted John Hughes’ work without attribution and published it as her own. The second is that Rajneesh, called Osho, took Paul Reps’ translation and used it as his own without attribution.
Vijnana Bhairava: The Practice of Centering Awareness Commentary by Swami Lakshman Joo Indica Books, India 2002
The history of the contact of Westerners with a certain body of Indian texts and practices, later denoted with the term “tantrism” by the West, is mainly a story of misunderstandings. Be it the condemnations of missionaries in colonial India, the orientalist construction of tantrism, or the contemporary tantra—fashion at the religious marketplaces—all these processes of cross-cultural interpretation have strengthened the inadequate image of this religious phenomenon and reduced its complexity to a mere cartoon: as a degeneration of the high brahmanic ideals, resulting in disgusting excesses and irrational scriptures, or as a religious framework for a kind of post-Freudian sexual therapy.
By the efforts of indologists in India and the West, especially since the second half of the last century, to publish critical editions and translations of the basic scriptures (Agamas, Tantras) of Hindu tantrism, we are getting now the basis for a new understanding of this important religious movement and multifaceted culture. One of its most fascinating streams is the nondualistic Shaivism of Kashmir. It had its flowering at the time of Abhinavagupta, the great master of the Trika school, in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Two of the main Agamas of this spiritual tradition which contain the revelation by Shiva are available in English: Paratrishika and Vijnana Bhairava Tantra. Now a commentary on the latter one in English from a contemporary master (acharya) of Kashmir Shaivism, Swami Lakshman Joo (1907-91), has also been published.
The question may arise: Since the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra is a more than thousand years old Indian text, one among many in the vast literature of the Hindu religions, what is its relevance for us in the West today, under post- or post-postmodern circumstances? How could it be precious for Christians?
The Vijnana Bhairava, though a short text, belongs to the most important Hindu tantras. Originated between 400 and 800 C.E., at the time of the first textual fixation of this movement, this text is unique among the tantric literature because of its concentration on meditative practice and spiritual experience. It looks like a manual of practitioners who collected the most important spiritual exercises and experiences, notwithstanding its possibly sectarian background. In fact, the tantra is connected with the oral tradition of the famous Siddhas, literally, “realized, perfected beings,” and it gives us a glimpse of the earliest stages of this movement.
The text contains 112 “means,” traditionally called dharanas, or “methods of union” (yukti) with God. The text makes it clear that everything can become a means to attain the supreme reality. No aspect of life is excluded from it, since the very core, the deep dimension of all, is God. It may be the one-pointed view of the empty sky, the intense experience of joy, of eating, of sexuality, of music, of intense surprise—in every moment there can occur this sudden “tilting” of the picture, and the subtle, hidden dimension of reality becomes visible. This happens also in great fear, bitter sorrow, or intense pain, because these states spontaneously can direct consciousness to one-pointedness. The text describes the goal of all these means as attainment of “pure consciousness” or, as the title says, the “[mystical] knowledge of Bhairava” (vijnana bhairava). Other descriptions are: becoming one with Shiva, merging in God, and revelation of God. Bhairava is here the name of the ultimate reality, which is both transcendent (the Shiva-aspect) and immanent (the aspect of the goddess Shakti, Shiva’s energy). In Christian terms, we would call this highest goal unio mystica. At this point Christians may object: Can this highest aim be reached by methods? In spite of old prejudices about “self-salvation,” the main factor in this tradition, too, is grace (anugraha). Without the free play of God’s grace, represented by his energy or spirit (“Shakti”), there can be no fulfillment. This becomes clear even by the structure of the verses itself: A verse describes very briefly a certain means, then there is a gap, and then the verse says: “one becomes Bhairava oneself” or uses a similar expression.
The Sanskrit text was published for the first time in 1918 in Bombay. A French translation and commentary by Lilian Silburn, the grande dame of Western scholarship on Kashmir Shaivism, appeared in 1961. The first English translation by Jaideva Singh was published in 1979, while a German translation by Bettina B‰umer came out in 2003. All three authors have been disciples of Swami Lakshman Joo, up to now the last Kashmiri Shaiva master, and their translations and interpretations are based on his teaching. He has taught the text several times in his Ashram in Srinagar in different languages: Kashmiri, Hindi, and English. Therefore, it is interesting that now his own, authentic interpretation is available. The precision and depth of his commentary is impressive. The quality becomes even clearer if one compares it with the very general treatment and absolutely free translation of the text by Rajneesh in his “Book of Secrets.” The main basis of the commentary of Swami Lakshman Joo, who was at the same time a mystic and scholar (pandita), is the immediacy of his own spiritual practice since childhood and his experience of all the dharanas. The famous secret language of the tantras makes the difficulties in understanding the text insurmountable. Therefore, the oral commentary tradition is indispensable, as Abhinavagupta says in one of his own commentaries: “One cannot say everything in a book.”
The present edition is exemplary: It gives the Sanskrit text in Nagari script and transliteration, followed by the English translation and commentary. It is the fruit of years of work by Bettina B‰umer and Sarla Kumar (India), who have edited the transcription of recordings of his teaching of the text in English in the seventies.
For anyone who wants to deepen his or her spiritual path this book can be helpful because of the detailed explanation of the exercises or experiences. Its wide range—whether the exercises concern breath, emptiness, awareness in eating, running, or listening to music—makes it possible for everyone to find his or her individual approach.
For me the book is a contribution to a contemporary spirituality, which we are urgently looking for—beyond a refuge from the world or getting lost in the world. It offers a view of life that suspends the borders between the sacred and the profane, the separation between God and world, without being a mere pantheism. As Utpaladeva, the grand-teacher of Abhinavagupta, exclaims in his hymns: “On what site do you not dwell? What exists that does not exist in your body?” It represents a spirituality that doesn’t neglect the universe, the body, sexuality, or the ordinary life of mortals (which is in fact so extraordinary), but discovers God with all and in all of it.